“I want to ensure we can ensure the sustainability and viability of our dairy sector, but not doing that at a cost to mums and dads pouring milk on their cornflakes.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison
A recent article in The Guardian ‘Drought and low milk prices push dairy farmers to the brink’ got me rather riled up. Not that I don’t find most of what our Prime Minister says offensive but this quote in particular felt like an attack on something very close to my heart; the true cost of food.
I grew up on a small hobby farm in North East Victoria. Thinking I was ‘to cool for the country’ I moved to Melbourne after high school where it didn’t take long before I found my passion in food politics and justice – access to quality food for all. I spent 8 years volunteering with Food not Bombs, working in and starting various food coops around the inner north and growing what I could in my backyard, but I knew my heart belonged to farming and set out to move back to the country and skill up.
Dairy became an obvious choice for me as I had to be working with animals and I wanted to see if it was possible to build a sustainable dairy industry.
Cost of food
I have always believed that access to nutritious food should not be a privilege reserved for the rich, however this should never come at the cost of someone else’s right to earn a living.
We are actually spending less on food now than we used to. Between 1960 and 2016 the percentage of income spent on food has dropped dramatically from 17% to 10% in America, Australia also sat at 10% in 2016.
What is food really worth? When shopping, we tend to make decisions based on a comparison, not absolute value assessment. Is this apple expensive compared to this other apple, rather than is this apple worth the price being asked.
There is one main factor which impacts the cost of food: the cost of labour. Care for people, care for animals and care for the land all take time. As produce gets cheaper, you can be sure that time invested in one, if not all, of these crucial elements has been sacrificed.
In the article mentioned above, they refer to a dairy farmer who calculated his hourly wage at $2.46. He was then quizzed by others how this was possible as they were making up to $10,000 loss a month! This is common across the agriculture industry. I would not think many are able to pay themselves minimum wage.
There are other factors at play here; farming has become industrialised, fewer and larger farmers, less owners and more staff, climate change, dependence on fossil fuel and environmentally problematic irrigation systems.
For most it’s become get big or get out, which always comes with a large infrastructure debt. However I also know that when humans get behind; financially, emotionally and physically, it becomes that much harder to ever get ahead. When your focus is on getting through the days, weeks, months ahead, it’s hard to think about the big picture of a more sustainable farming system which improves the land, animals and your life itself.
Agriculture may well be the biggest industry accelerating climate change and yet simultaneously represents some of the greatest opportunities to slow, and potentially reverse, the effects. I believe that if we are to support farmers to make changes on their farms which directly impact all our futures we need to start by valuing their work and not just financially.
Connection to food
Most of us humans don’t like to personally do wrong by people we know. It’s hard not to value food when you see how hard someone you know has worked to produce it. However the more we are disconnected from our food system, the more we make shopping choices based on what we feel like eating and price, without taking into consideration all the circumstances of people and land involved in the production. Participating in your food system gives value beyond a monetary exchange: regaining influence over how our land is managed, animals raised and ultimately the quality of the food you eat.
Quality vs quantity
This is a place I often come back to; why do we eat? Is it to nourish ourselves or to simply fill the space in our stomach? Unfortunately we live in a time where all apples are not created equal, our fruit and vegetables have seen “reliable declines in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C over the past half century.” This is largely due to soil depletion and breeding for size, growth rate, pest resistance and appearance. Supporting a farming movement which values soil above all and the diversity of that which grows above and below the ground is positively helping to improve the nutrient density of your food. So like with most things, the better the quality, the less you actually need.
The fact that you are reading this post means I’m probably preaching to the converted but ScoMo’s words really hit hard at the heart of our broken food system. So I dare him to look Berta in the eyes and tell her a litre of her milk is worth less than a minute of his time. I look forward to her throwing her head in the air and walking away. It sure took hours of time for people to raise her, grow and harvest feed for her, milk her, build and provide all the equipment for milking and bottling milk to sell to our community.
Thanks again to everyone who has been patiently waiting. We are still hoping for a late May/June launch and expecting to be selling milk at the market/farm-shop for $4.50/L and and pre-order subscriptions for $4/L. I intend to publish my income and expenditure when up and running for everyone to see the true costs of running a small scale farming enterprise.
Thanks again for everyone’s support.